Fire service seeking government settlement
TYNE AND Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) said ‘families could be put in danger’ if it is forced to pay a £10m bill over a pension fund.
Chronicle Live reported on the TWFRS situation, where it is ‘seeking a settlement’ with the government over a ‘huge financial black hole’ corresponding to a £10m ‘overclaim on a pension fund’. The service has been ‘threatened with court’ if it does not pay the bill to the Home Office, which would entail repaying cash ‘mistakenly over-claimed from a pensions top-up fund’ between 2006/2007 and 2011/2012.
Chiefs are said to be ‘desperate to negotiate a deal to lessen the blow of the repayment’ given that TWFRS has faced ‘seven years of budget cuts totalling £22m’, but the news outlet saw a leaked letter that purported to show ‘the government is not willing to negotiate’, in which it imposed a ‘two-and-a-half week deadline’ for a repayment plan to be sorted out. If this was not achieved, TWFRS would face an invoice for £10m.
In May, the service requested a meeting with Fire Minister Nick Hurd to discuss repayment, but 74 days later the Home Office response from Marc Sherratt, the head of firefighters’ pension, stated that Mr Hurd ‘considers the matter closed’ and refuses to meet representatives. The department also stated in its letter that it is ‘formally commencing the recovery process’, giving TWFRS until 25 August to ‘come up with a repayment plan’.
If the service fails to pay, the Home Office stated that it ‘reserves the right to recover through the courts’. In response to the story, a Home Office spokesperson stated that ‘we have made clear to TWFRS that, while they are required to repay the money in full, we will consider staged repayment terms’.
Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council and vice-chair of the TWFRS authority, said: ‘That the government is now refusing even to discuss this threat to our fire service shows a shocking disregard for safety across Tyne and Wear. There will be multi-million pound cuts to firefighting budgets directly as a result of the Home Office’s macho grandstanding. There is still time for the government to avoid this, and I urge ministers to see sense and talk to us about this.’
A TWFRS spokesperson added that ‘there is an open line of communication between the chief fire officer and the Home Office on this issue and we are keen to achieve a resolution at the earliest opportunity’, with the service said to be ‘still reeling’ from the loss of 343 staff and six frontline appliances ‘in seven years’.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) also responded, claiming that ‘not only did staff not benefit from the pensions grant, it helped councils maintain low council tax precepts, winning them Whitehall plaudits at the time’, with Andy Noble, FBU executive council member for the North East, commenting that ‘recent events have shown the importance of maintaining a fully funded and effective fire and rescue service’
He went on: ‘Grenfell Tower is an unfortunate timely reminder of what can happen when the government puts austerity politics before public safety. If TWFRS is forced to pay back the historical overpayment, it will lead to the decimation of the service we provide, without doubt impacting not only on firefighter safety, but that of the general public also. In the interest of public safety we would urge the minister to reconsider his decision.”